Senior Writer

Backcountry modernizes for the cloud era

Apr 26, 2022
Cloud ComputingDigital Transformation

A complete overhaul of its ecommerce stack finds the outdoor recreational retailer poised to offer improved customer experiences and personalization just as it starts a push to open more physical stores.

Sridhar Nallani, CTO, Backcountry
Credit: Backcountry

Undertaking a top-to-bottom modernization of a dusty enterprise stack can feel a bit like scaling a mountain. At least that has been the experience of Backcountry CTO Sridhar Nallani, who was hired in 2020 specifically to overhaul the online retailer’s digital presence.

Despite nearly $1 billion in online revenue in 2020, the web-based outdoor recreational retailer was running its entire business on an outdated and unsupported e-commerce platform called ATG. It got the basic job done but the company’s executive leadership team (ELT) knew it was time for a transformation.

B2C expert Nallani — who had previously helped modernize Gymboree, the Gap, and Macy’s — was tapped as an advisor to identify the holes in Backcountry’s digital strategy and come up with a plan.

“They wanted an assessment of the current state of technology at that time, in early 2020,” says Nallani, who began his evaluation in March 2020 and was later appointed CTO in August. “The company is awesome and has such phenomenal loyalty from its customer base. But tech was in the total doldrums.”

Out of 15 metrics Nallani used to measure the company’s overall infrastructure, 13 or 14 came out as “red,” meaning very deficient, and the only bright light — the company’s  ecommerce system — was being phased out by Oracle. “That means either [Backcountry’s ecommerce systems] were past end of life, or they didn’t exist. This was pretty egregious for a billion-dollar company,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of revenues are coming in online and you’re on this kind of platform?”

Moving from advisor to CTO, Nallani’s task was monumental, as there were many technology gaps to fill, including an antiquated ecommerce platform that needed to be replaced and a migration to the cloud, of course. Backcountry also lacked many core services critical for an online retailer — no CMS, no analytics, no data platform, and no data lake. On top of that, Nallani had to persuade a team of C-suite executives to invest in a three-year roadmap and technology overhaul that changed every aspect of Backcountry’s business.

Fortunately for Nallani, the ELT — including the CEO and CFO — were willing to tackle the technical challenges that would bolster the business even if it meant dumping static reports and learning to use executive dashboards that yielded real-time data and actionable insights.

“This is a painful process — to get people to start thinking differently and changing their operational psyche,” he says, adding that the shift was essential, given that “the game changes when you can have real-time visibility and actionable data.”

The 3C roadmap: CDP, CMS, cloud

Nallani, like many IT leaders, found the challenge invigorating. “I love to be in these situations,” he says. “I gravitate towards the tougher puzzles — they’re more interesting.”

For any online retailer, migrating to the cloud and implementing a reference architecture — including both ecommerce and front-end customer experience (CX) systems — are paramount, the CTO says. In recent years, e-commerce platforms have evolved into a combination of cloud, analytics, CX UIs, and data lakes dubbed customer data platforms (CDPs).

For its CDP, Nallani selected Amperity, which provides headless e-commerce, he explains.

“CDP handles everything related to the customer, which includes customer data on products they purchased, browse and click data, their order history and profile/preferences, etc. We add things like demographic, weather, localization, life stage, and more to this to enhance the customer record,” he says, adding that Amperity not only “identifies your customer” but also “provides customized content to be displayed dynamically in real time to drive conversion.”

To make good on this, Backcountry also adopted Adobe Customer Experience Management, a content management system (CMS) that helps the retailer deliver dynamic pages and advanced customer experiences. The company’s 150-member IT staff tweaks these experiences, as well as its executive dashboards, daily to deliver a more efficient, engaging, and updated experience for customers and execs alike.

Of course, none of this would be complete without a shift to the cloud. Nallani is a firm believer in profit-making benefits of the cloud, as well as the inherent speed to market the cloud can provide. Google Cloud Platform fuels Backcountry’s stack, with Google’s Looker providing real-time analytics and predictive analytics and Google’s BigQuery data warehouse handling “everything end to end: product, sales, order, inventory, supply chain, and more.” The company also uses Mulesoft to provide an integration layer for API access. 

The 4th C: Change management

To realize his vision, Nallani had to convince the ELT of the benefits of his plan, as going from 0 to 60 can be a tough sell.

This included a fair amount of education and training to get C-suite leaders to accept and exploit the advanced services his plan provides, especially executive dashboards. “Many of these folks are awesome leaders, but they’ve never been introduced to this whole customer data platform concept, and for those of us who have done this before, we know we have a role to play,” the CTO says.

Now in the second year of its journey, Backcountry is about halfway through the process of migrating to the cloud and beginning to piece together its advanced personalization and AI strategy, which will be based primarily on Google technology, including possibly its Vertex platform, Nallani says.

Because customer retention and growth are critical for retailers, personalization is seen as the “holy grail” of ecommerce. Backcountry’s Personalization At Scale program, which is already under way, will take time to pay off, the CTO says.

“Personalization is not trivial, and it involves, at a high level, a data lake, CDP, AI/ML platform, ecommerce site, email or chat or any other customer touch point,” Nallani says. “For us, Amperity takes care of CDP and AI but the way we are planning to go is to use Google’s Retail API and Recommendation API to drive personalization.”

The CTO estimates it will take six months to a year to “be in a truly humming stage” on AI personalization. “We’re not there now. But we’re making big bets on it,” he says.

The privately-held company would not release specific financial outcomes, but Backcountry’s  revenues are now more than $1 billion, showing a three-year growth of almost 20%, and its profits have more than doubled, Nallani says. In terms of performance, the company’s speed to market is ten times what it was two years ago, he adds.

From on-prem to the cloud to … brick and mortar?

The final phase of Backcountry’s journey may come as a surprise. As the company moves to complete its full-scale migration from on-premises to the cloud by the spring of 2023, it is also looking to grow another channel for selling its namesake branded gear: reality-based commerce. 

That’s right. This dotcom aims to have a physical presence in major cities, just as its competitors REI and Patagonia do. Founded in 1996 in Park City, Utah, Backcountry once had a retail presence but has since built the bulk of its business on the web. It is revisiting the retail store as a business strategy in order to give its outdoors enthusiast customers a real-life experience of its wares. The company has two retail stores — one in Park City and another in Boulder, Colo. — and plans to open doors in Seattle; Stanford, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; Boston; and Denver, among other cities, the CTO says.

That’s not to say Backcountry expects to shift its primary sales strategy. “It’s extremely critical to have everything in the cloud,” Nallani says. “I can provision and spawn up any system at light speed. I can scale things in literally an instant. Everything is real time. Things are secure and I don’t have to deal with uptime/downtime myself. The Google Cloud Platform has been and is the game changer.”